Thomas College in Waterville, pictured in April 2019. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Maine awarded four colleges and universities about $4.5 million to provide services and programs that will prepare students for jobs in industries hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, with another round of funds to be awarded this year.

Thomas College and Husson University received $1,995,886 and $1,896,110, respectively, according to information provided by the Maine Department of Education. The University of New England secured $327,118, and Maine Maritime Academy received $185,000.

The 2022 Higher Education Workforce grants were broken into two categories: grants for work-based learning experiences and grants for new or expanded programs, spokesperson Marcus Mrowka said. The department anticipates the remaining $4.59 million will be issued this year as awards ranging from $250,000 to $2 million, he said.

The grants are one way Maine is collaborating with higher education institutions to rebuild its workforce and retain young people as it recovers from the pandemic. A substantial number of Mainers lost jobs during the shutdown, while others were asked to continue working on the frontline and grew exhausted, in some cases leaving their occupations

Schools around the state applied for the grants, but the state selected these four based on a scoring system and proposals that clearly showed the institutions could address critical needs in Maine’s workforce by advancing the state’s 10-year economic development strategic plan, among other factors.

Thomas, Husson, Maine Maritime Academy and University of New England will use the funds to support students preparing to work in construction, education, health care and social assistance, manufacturing, tourism and a few other industries.

They’re tasked with developing new or expanded certificate or degree programs for these fields, according to the Maine Department of Education.

“These industries and sectors have experienced workforce challenges caused by COVID-19, including high rates of employment loss and unemployment,” information provided by the department said, also listing agriculture, fishing and forestry as well as information and clean energy fields.

The state also looked for schools that prioritize disadvantaged students, those with disabilities and groups such as new Mainers and Black, Indigenous and people of color.

Thomas College announced its nearly $2 million award this week and pledged to help make college affordable, especially for low-income students and those eligible for federal Pell grants. The funds provide scholarship assistance, laptops and travel funds to students.

Funds will support undergraduate and graduate students at Thomas in high-demand fields such as cybersecurity, computer science, education, criminal justice and psychology, according to the college, though it didn’t address whether existing programs would change or new ones would be offered.

The college’s spokesperson was not immediately available to comment Friday.

“We want our students to have what they need to be successful,” Provost Thomas Edwards said in a prepared statement. “This grant supports our students in career fields that in turn help support the economic future of the state of Maine.”

Husson University, which received two grants that total $1,896,110, is using one to increase the number of undergraduate-level nurses in Maine and the other to expand internship experiences, Mrowka said.

The University of New England’s two grants are geared toward the teaching industry, he said. One focuses on outreach to disadvantaged high school students interested in the field, while the other is being used to expand its special education internship program.

MMA is using the funding for certain apprenticeships and leveraging micro-credentials for the information, manufacturing and clean energy industries, Mrowka said.

The 2022 awards varied in size and usage, Mrowka said, and the schools are following detailed monthly work plans. The ultimate goal was an increase in students with post-secondary work experience in an industry hurt by the pandemic, he said.

Last year’s round of funding must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and expended by June 30, 2025, he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of higher education institutions that received funding and did not reflect the full amounts that the schools were awarded.